Here are Five Must-Try Eateries in North Carolina's Food Mecca, Raleigh
On my trip to the capital of North Carolina, I had the awesome experience of going on a guided food tour through the downtown area of Raleigh. Taste Carolina Gourmet Food Tours planned an entire afternoon for me that included five eateries ― each of which was distinctively delicious.
Raleigh is home to award-winning restaurants, creative chefs, breweries, local hotspots, as well as restaurants steeped in history. I was surprised to learn, after chatting with several Raleigh entrepreneurs (who also tend to be chefs and owners themselves), that each of them not only wants success for themselves and their businesses, but also for the community.
Each of the spots I visited utilized local ingredients from their next-door neighbors. The produce, dairy, and more come from local outposts, and moreover, each restaurant will openly boast about how awesome their fellow chicken farmer or tomato grower is.
Our first stop on the tour was Centro, a lively and welcoming Mexican restaurant. Centro looks like a colorful work of art. Framed portraits, paintings, intricately designed masks, and vibrant creations cover the already bright walls. There are many Mother Mary, crosses, and Jesus depictions adorning the restaurant, as well as hanging, glowing lanterns and rainbow papel picados.
The food is authentic Mexican and Latin American cuisine; the menu ranges from enchiladas and tamales to chilaquiles and tostadas, and, of course, craft margaritas, mezcals, and cocktails.
Owner and chef Angela Salamanca decided to whip us up a special item for us to try: arepas with chicken salad and a side of plantain black beans. The warm, buttery arepa was filled with a fresh, flavorful chicken salad ― which couldn’t be more different from the mayonnaise-laden goop sold in many grocery stores.
Originating from Colombia, Salamanca explained that she chose to serve us arepas in order to highlight how each region and state has its own version of the cornmeal bread. Each interpretation of what makes an arepa authentically “good” is reflective of the area’s heritage and culture.
Our next stop was to Gravy, a family-friendly Italian-American eatery that specializes in quality, locally sourced fare. What’s gravy? According to the pasta experts here, “gravy” is “the pasta sauce that their [Italian-Americans] mothers and grandmothers cooked fresh every night.” This restaurant offers crowd-pleasing classics such as house-made gnocchi with mushrooms and a leek cream sauce; tagliatelle a la Bolognese with local beef and pancetta Bolognese and house-made ricotta; as well as authentic, cheesy, layered lasagna.
Chef Justin Bartolet treated us to an off-the-menu creation: espelette mezzaluna, moon-shaped pasta filled with smoked ham and served with poblano pepper sauce and marinated tomatoes. We also enjoyed a wine pairing that complemented the salty, smokiness of the pasta. Fun fact: Gravy butchers its own whole-hog meat in the kitchen and uses each hog’s meat entirely — as in nothing goes to waste — in dishes that range from traditional pasta sauces to head cheese and more.
The Roast Grill (Hot Weiners)
This was a very special ― and unexpected ― stop on this culinary adventure. The Roast Grill has been in business since 1940, strictly selling hot dogs and glass-bottle Cokes only (plus its famed authentic Greek desserts). This hot dog eatery has been run with the same dedication and love by the same family since it first opened.
The only things that are allowed to go on these dogs are The Roast Grill’s famous chili, mustard, slaw, and onions ― ketchup is forbidden. Why? Founder Mary Charles and host George Poniros will tell you that “it interferes with the chili!”
This nostalgic spot has been visited by everyone from Elvis Presley to Man Vs. Food’s Adam Richman. "You won't find generic ball-park dogs here,” said the famous eating machine. “At the Roast Grill, every frank is 90% beef with just a bit of lean pork flavor, uniquely cooked to a crisp black char on their 70 year old original grill."
Lucettegrace is a lovely patisserie that offers French-inspired savory and sweet pastries, lunch items, and indulgent desserts. This welcoming downtown spot has a bright, industrial design that’s accented with bright yellow stools, chairs, and freshly picked flowers.
Pastry chef/owner Daniel Benjamin features outrageously fabulous treats such as the candy bar cake (almond cake with milk chocolate praline crunch, and a dark chocolate hazelnut mousse); the escazu PB pretzel cake (escazu dark chocolate mousee, caramel cremeux, and a peanut butter crunch — I tried this, but a brownie version with coffee mousse and gold flakes); and a blueberries + cream vanilla cheesecake with a blueberry mousse, pistachio cake, almond cake, and a blueberry compote.
Savory items are equally tasty and inventive, and include items like bacon jam and cheese Danish and buttermilk scones filled with pistachios, figs, and cardamom. I also had the pleasure of tasting one of the fresh peach ice cream macaroon sandwiches, which was heavenly.
Bittersweet is an excellent spot for people who are into cocktails, desserts, and coffee (that’s everyone, right?). This charming eatery/ lounge has a slightly retro feel and is beautifully designed with a classic bar, back wall filled with all sorts of colorful spirit bottles — especially gin ― cocktail glasses, espresso-makers, coffee cups, and barista equipment. Of course, it also has freshly baked goods lining the countertop.
Owner and baker Kim Hammer got her start baking for friends, and then one day it became clear that there was a demand for her goodies. Hammer began commercially baking straight from her kitchen and began selling her home-baked goods throughout the Triangle-area, including at the famed Carrboro Farmers Market.
From there she made her passion into a full-time job by opening a “terribly wonderful dessert, coffee and cocktail lounge” that offers all seasonal treats and complex, innovative flavor combinations. Also noteworthy ― she has some of the most badass tattoos I’ve ever seen. My favorite? Her dagger-through-the-heart tattoo with one, wonderful word: butter.
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